The nation’s poet

Natasha Trethewey mines poetry to explore the pain and struggle of her past.

The National Book Festival along the Mall in Washington is thronged with readers and authors who’ve come to revel in the written word on this fall day in 2004.

Just three years old, the festival has been forged by first lady Laura Bush and the Library of Congress in the belief that literature is a living thing, that the right words, composed in just the right way, can push a life forward.

To the podium steps poet Natasha Trethewey.

Her work illuminates people in the shadows: a seamstress stitching her way through segregation; an early 20th-century prostitute so fair skinned she can pass for white; a dock worker’s wife who keeps her husband’s supper warm as she waits for him well into the night.

Into some of her poems she has woven her own complex story: the blending of the black and white blood that made her; her blood tie to her native Mississippi; the blood of her mother, cruelly spilled.

What binds the characters? It is that in the body of American letters, they have routinely been pushed to the edge of the page by other protagonists deemed more “universal.” This day Natasha reads poems that bring their marginalized stories to the center.

“We peered from the windows, shades drawn,

at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,

the charred grass still green. Then

we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.”

In the audience is Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. He is intrigued. Here is a beautiful woman, reading an elegant poem about the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross in her family’s yard. Her poems are accessible, classic in structure, at turns gentle then brutal. Not often does Billington seek out a poet’s work after a reading. With Natasha, he does.

2012: It's May. Natasha is the incoming chair of the creative writing program at Emory University and the newly minted poet laureate of her home state of Mississippi. She gets an unexpected call from the Library of Congress. Billington and his colleagues have been following her work since her first reading at the book festival. They are impressed with her 2007 collection, "Native Guard." They are also taken with "Beyond Katrina," her 2010 meditation on the psychological and structural wreckage dotting Mississippi's Gulf Coast landscape years after Hurricane Katrina's landfall.

Billington believes the time for this kind of poet is right now. She is only 46 and in the prime of her artistic life. This will signal that the library is looking forward. He offers her the highest United States honor a poet can achieve, poet laureate of the nation.

Saying yes isn’t hard, though the honor humbles her, even makes her a little nervous.

The laureateship, officially the poet laureate consultant in poetry, is a congressionally mandated position of one to two years. Once a figurehead, anyone in the position now is encouraged to develop a program that interjects poetry into our daily lives.

Make the nation care about poetry?

What has this 46-year-old gotten into?

The shorthand of Natasha’s life reads like words plucked from a free verse poem: Native Mississippian. Black mother. White father. Poet father. Poet daughter. Atlanta and DeKalb public school student. “A” student. UGA head cheerleader. Trauma survivor. Big sister. Decatur resident. Meticulous housekeeper. Proud wife. Exacting professor. Historical poet. Nobody’s pushover.

She has publicly sketched the arc of her life in her poems, yet she is intensely protective of its sweetest moments. People can parse her work, even parse her appearance, but she will not tolerate parsing of the inner world she retreats to each evening with her husband.

“This is not a reality TV show,” she says.

Fellow poets warn her about giving in to the relentless demands of the media as she moves forward. If she does, it will cripple her ability to create the art that got her here. They have also cautioned her about the pains, intended or not, that will be inflicted by critics. It galls Natasha that the press calls her a poet of race or memory.

“Memory. Race. Murder. That’s what they say about me,” she says. “I am an elegiac poet. I have some historical questions and I’m grappling with ways to make sense of history; why it still haunts us in our most intimate relationships with each other, but also in our political decisions.”

In January she moves to Washington to serve her term at the Library of Congress. Even she says she is not certain how she will convince us to incorporate poetry into our daily routine.

For clues to how she may, we might look at how poetry came to matter in hers.

As Billington sees it, in a profoundly humane way, she has made heroes and heroines of forgotten Americans. They are often black, usually working class, indelibly Southern. In her words he also sees moments that remind him of the Brontë sisters. He appreciates her compulsion to wrestle with difficult questions of history that have roots in race, law and region. And he’s compelled by the frankness with which she has dealt with grief that could have rendered her mute; all of this in five volumes that together are barely 2 inches thick. To Billington the stories Natasha tells are not simply hers but America’s.

2. “In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi.”

1966: Atlantan James Dickey becomes U.S. poet laureate in 1966, the year Natasha is born. Though his best known work will be the harrowing novel "Deliverance," Dickey is first a poet. He writes of war, but also the South with its swaths of kudzu, where cars have panels that separate a "Lady and colored driver."

It is into this “colored” South that Natasha’s life begins. Her mother, Gwen, is a coed at Kentucky State College, her father, Eric, a student athlete there and budding poet. Gwen is black, from Gulfport, Miss. Eric is white, from rural Nova Scotia, Canada. He has chosen the school because he is poor, the tuition is low and he can get an athletic scholarship. Plus, from the school brochure, the college looks integrated. That is until he sets foot on campus and realizes the students that appeared white in pictures were actually fair-skinned blacks. He has chosen a historically black college. Yet he stays.

Gwen is brown-skinned and lovely. He is taken with her performance in a school production of “Antigone.” She is struck that he has the courage to pledge a black fraternity. They date, binding themselves in poetry and each other. Their union is a symbol of the change in store for the nation. But at the moment they are still in the “colored” South. They are harshly reminded of it when Gwen becomes pregnant. There are statutes against interracial marriage on the books in Kentucky and when they try to marry, no one will help them break the law.

With their baby on the way they take a bus to Ohio to become Mr. and Mrs. Trethewey.

Their daughter will be 1 year old before the Supreme Court strikes down the nation’s remaining anti-miscegenation laws.

Natasha is born in Gulfport on April 26, 1966, on the 100th anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day. Her early years are spent with her parents and her dark-skinned family in the segregated part of Gulfport.

Her extended Mississippi family is one of industry. Natasha’s grandmother, Leretta Turnbough, is a seamstress. Her Uncle “Son” owns the local working man’s bar. Natasha attends Head Start where her mother is an administrator. And Natasha’s father works on the shipyard docks. In this house Natasha is doted on, absorbing the stories the adults tell to pass the time.

It’s a joy she’ll render years later in the poem “Collection Day.”

“Saturday morning, Motown

forty-fives and thick seventy-eights

on the phonograph, window fans

turning light into our rooms,

we clean house to a spiral groove”

How nice it would be for Natasha if the world rocks on in such easy domestic rhythms. But the world demands choices. Black mother. White father. Black community. Who, then, does that make the child?

Some say, black child. The customs of Mississippi forbid, white child. The truth of her blood says, biracial child.

There is no acknowledgement in the culture, at least not now, that the racial middle ground is solid ground. America demands: Choose.

With light skin, hazel eyes and straight hair, a young Natasha tries to figure it out.

Sitting along the edges of conversation when her grandmother’s friends are visiting, she is black child. Openly pitied by whites when she is with both her parents, she is biracial child. And sometimes, when she’s on her own, the world sees her as white child. Sometimes she offers no correction.

The attempts at passing for white inflame her mother.

Anytime Natasha is caught telling a lie, Gwen makes her lick a bar of Ivory soap. As Natasha will later write in the poem, "White Lies," it is to "cleanse your lying tongue."

Life along the Gulf Coast provides Eric with plenty of inspiration for his own poetry. Tired of life on the docks, he enrolls in the University of New Orleans to get his master’s degree, and then Tulane University for his Ph.D. He commutes back and forth. If he’s in the car with his daughter he tells her to write what she sees to cut down on boredom.

Those early entries by Natasha may become lost to time. But at some point, the loving father, adored by his daughter, pens a poem with the line, “I study my cross-breed child.” In his mind he means no harm. The phrase strikes Natasha as wrong. She is a smart child and knows that “breed” is a word used to reference animals. A crossing of breeds? Where does she fit in a scenario like that? Rather than ask the question she buries it deep inside. There the reference bruises and festers for nearly 35 years.

By 1972 Natasha’s parents divorce under the strain of physical and emotional distance. Eric continues his academic path in New Orleans. Natasha and her mother move to Atlanta so Gwen can pursue her master’s degree at Atlanta University.

Atlanta will bring opportunity, but it will also bring fresh pain, fuel for poems Natasha has yet to write.

3. “I was asleep while you were dying.”

1976: It is a bicentennial year of firsts.

Robert Hayden is named poet laureate, the first African American to hold the post. Hayden is relentless in his insistence that his work is not race poetry, but American poetry, weft in the nation’s literary fabric. To him, attempts to label it anything but American poetry are tantamount to artistic dismissal.

There is another poetic first this year. Natasha is 10 and has a poem published in the “Georgia Images and Reflections of Poets and Authors: Collected Bicentennial Year of 1976.” “Describing Animals,” is the sort of rhyming, eight-line confection that makes a parent proud.

On the outside, Natasha’s world looks like a shining example of the city’s new black middle class. Her mother has finished school and is moving up the administrative ladder in social services. Gwen has remarried, this time to a black man, a Vietnam veteran and appliance repairman. They have had a son, Joe. Natasha spends summers in Gulfport with her grandmother and time with her father in New Orleans, where he is a college professor. She’s a budding gymnast. In her predominantly black public schools, she writes poems about Civil Rights heroes. It doesn’t happen in a single moment, but she knows she wants to be like the black women who reared her.

Natasha and her little brother pose for a picture around that time. It’s the kind of studio portrait that comes to yellow over the years in the folds of a wallet. They appear happy.

The truth is that Natasha’s stepfather is beating her mother and psychologically abusing Natasha. Gwen goes to work some days with bruises on her face. While she’s there, sometimes he makes Natasha pack a bag, get into the car, then tells her he will take her to a center for the mentally “retarded.” He drives her around until she nearly chokes on her tears. Only then does he take her home. She is in his house but she is not his child. She is a white man’s child. And she is too scared to tell her mother of her torment.

She takes solace in her journal. When she suspects her stepfather is reading it behind her back, some of her entries grow defiant and profane. They are directed squarely at him. At this point she cannot know the depths of his capacity.

After 10 years, Gwen divorces her second husband. Through it all, she has steadily moved up the professional ladder, rising to personnel director for the DeKalb County Health Department. Her ex-husband stalks her.

On Valentine’s Day 1984, he allegedly kidnaps Gwen at gunpoint as she leaves for work, forces her back into her apartment, beats her and repeatedly sticks her with a syringe full of battery acid. Police are notified after she does not show up for work. He is arrested and charged with attempted murder, but convicted of criminal trespass and gets a year in jail. As soon as he is released, his threats resume. Gwen, now 40, is put under police protection and her phone is wiretapped to record his threats. But there is a lapse.

On June 5, 1985, as his son waits outside for the morning school bus, the man appears, takes the 11-year-old’s key and enters the apartment with the child. Gwen runs to the parking lot. He catches her. He punches her. Then he shoots her in the head.

She dies on the pavement.

Their son, who is in the apartment, is not physically harmed.

Natasha is away at school. The first reference of her in The Atlanta Constitution reads: “His wife leaves a daughter from her first marriage, Natasha, 19, a sophomore cheerleader at the University of Georgia.”

He pleads guilty to murder and receives two consecutive life sentences in prison.

Natasha’s brother, Joe, goes to live with his grandmother in Gulfport in the same house that was, for Natasha, a relatively happy one.

Back at UGA, she folds her grief into words on paper, though poetry remains a puzzle. She creeps back into campus life, even becoming the first black captain of the Bulldogs’ cheer squad. In 1989, she graduates with an English degree.

Like Hayden, she will insist that her story is no less vital as she masters her art form.

4. She writes what is given to her to write.

1990s: Natasha pursues a master’s in poetry at Hollins University in Virginia where her father now teaches. Years ago, on her visits to New Orleans, she would spend evenings listening to him and his friends debate points of literature and politics well into the night. It made her think she’d like to live a life of the mind. Now at Hollins, Eric suggests his daughter write a poem in the manner of “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke. She writes the poem “Flounder,” about a childhood fishing trip with her great Aunt “Sugar.” The catch of the day yields an early lesson in what it might mean for her to navigate the world as biracial. One side of the fish is white, the other black.

In her backpack Natasha carries poet Rita Dove’s “Thomas and Beulah.” Read one way, the work is about Dove’s grandparents, for whom the book is named. Read another, it is the story of the Great Migration, the waves of blacks who left the Deep South between 1910 and 1970 for greater opportunities in the Midwest, North and West.

For Natasha the book becomes a template.

All around Natasha a new aesthetic is building. The black children of integration — no longer “colored” — are growing up and committing their stories to film, screen and books. Spike Lee is ushering in a new wave of black cinema. Visual artist Kara Walker is rattling sensibilities with her paper-cut murals on themes of race and the plantation South. Poet Elizabeth Alexander has her first collection published, “The Venus Hottentot.” In it, she draws a jagged line from Nelson Mandela, John Coltrane, her own Jamaican-American family, to the “Venus Hottentot,” a 19th-century South African woman who was carted around Europe as a sideshow attraction. (Years later Alexander will deliver the poem at President Barack Obama’s inauguration).

For these young artists, theirs is an expression of inherited blackness, but also a subtle reflection of the impact integration has had on their generation. The question is: What is this iteration of blackness?

Leading the charge in poetry is a group of African-American Ivy League students called the Dark Room Collective. Sharan Strange (who will later teach at Spelman College) and Thomas Sayers Ellis are its founders. Ellis says being a minority within a minority within a minority — black, Ivy-league, poetry student — is too rough to endure in isolation. Kevin Young (who will go on to be a National Book Award finalist and Emory University professor) is invited to join. So is Natasha, who is enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in the MFA program.

They are rigorous with their sonnets, exacting in free verse, every one of them determined to join the cannon. Each person represents, in some loose way, a different aspect of blackness not rooted in dogma. It’s like jazz. Ellis invites Natasha because she helps, as he says, widen blackness, and that “there is balance in the widening.” As their reputation grows they are invited to read up and down the East Coast, the New Yorker magazine and others take note.

For Young it’s sort of like being in a garage band on the verge of a breakthrough. To him, when Natasha reads it’s obvious she’ll be a soloist.

But one of her graduate professors thinks she is sounding a false note.

The white instructor (a famous poet she refuses to name) tells her to stop writing about her dead mother and her blackness and to write instead “about the situation in Northern Ireland.”


His words scorch and by the time Natasha winds up in the office of her thesis adviser, author John Edgar Wideman, she is near tears. What is wrong with writing about aspects of the black experience, and are they not, by nature, the American experience? As American as those moments that inspired Flannery O’Connor’s work? And is the story of her mother not that of one black woman, but also that of any woman who has ever raised children, worked hard, or had dreams that were erased? Wideman listens, having faced doubters himself as an African-American writer. He tells her that she has to write the truth and that the truth is her own story.

The situation in Northern Ireland is not hers to tell; the one in Gulfport, that is her story.

As the millennium closes, “Domestic Work,” Natasha’s first collection of poems describing the world Wideman encouraged her to document, wins the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize. It will become the most prestigious prize specifically honoring an African-American poet. The judge who selects the winner is Rita Dove, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Thomas and Beulah” in 1987 and became U.S. poet laureate in 1993. When the two meet for the first time, Dove hugs her tightly. Their work has rendered them kin.

5. “How the past comes back.”

2000s: The board lights up. Fellowships. Another book, "Bellocq's Ophelia." Grants. A professorship. All the while Natasha continues to research and write, fusing neglected bits of history with her own. Not six years after winning Cave Canem, she submits a new manuscript to her publisher.

Some of the poems are about her mother; the pain of her suffering, her child’s ache over her loss. Others are about the Gulfport years and the Jim Crow laws that menaced her family. Another set of poems is even more ambitious. They are based on a real, black, Civil War Union Army regiment sent to guard white Confederate prisoners of war on Ship Island off Mississippi’s coast. She has spent months pouring through archival records, photographs and documents of the period. To write from the soldiers’ point of view she has had to inhabit their thoughts to make them flesh in verse. She says the volume, “Native Guard,” is therefore a monument to the marginalized and the forgotten.

It wins the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

2012: Late August and Natasha is delivering the keynote address at the Decatur Book Festival. She is reading from her new book, "Thrall." It is based on the famous "casta" paintings, which depict parsing of races in colonial Mexico — Indian, African, Spanish and the children of their unions. Into this she has layered poems about her father.

The words glide out of her, falling raw and tender on the listening ear.

“and I hear, again, his words — I study

my crossbreed child—misnomer

and taxonomy, the language of zoology.”

As the stanzas build, some in the audience gasp. At the end, she tries to break the tension by encouraging the audience to email her father: “Tell him it wasn’t that bad.”

Her first book was dedicated “For my father,” an appreciation, perhaps, for his encouragement of her talent. “Thrall,” is dedicated “To my father.” He has written about her in his work for years. Now she addresses him directly.

They’ve read together at events, argued with each other, loved each other. Father and daughter is a tricky relationship to get right. The injury of “cross-breed child” must be dealt with.

“Breed means species,” she says. “In that equation what species is my mother?”

If the phrase pierced her back then, it pierces him now that she’s airing it in public.

He says he never meant to suggest his child was an animal, only that he sees her as a blend of the best of him and her mother; Arabian and quarter horse, he says. But “she gets it all tied up with the relationship between mule and mulatto. It’s all wrapped up with her personal biracial identity, and I don’t know whether she’s able to be impartial about it.”

Weeks later, she replies: “Daddy, you still don’t hear what you’re saying. It’s just stunning to me.”

Still, apart from “Native Guard,” her father calls “Thrall,” her best work yet.

There is a city-wide celebration for Natasha at the Decatur town square gazebo the day after her national laureateship is publicly announced. Natasha’s father is there along with her husband, Brett Gadsden, an African-American history professor. Her brother, Joe, is in town to celebrate, too. Caught in the moment her father seems to float as high as she does. He says it’s bigger than the Pulitzer, it’s one of a kind. As hot as it is in the June sun, he pulls her gently against his barrel chest. She lets him cradle her and smother her with a huge kiss.

A stone’s throw away from where they are standing is the courthouse where her mother’s killer was sentenced.

Natasha is crying now, the source of her tears known only to her.

Sept. 13, 2012: The audience in the auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington leaps to its feet. Applause crashes against the stage where a black woman in a dark dress stands, her hands clasped to her heart. Today, she looks as though she might burst with joy. This is U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, about to officially open the library's literary season with a reading. She has come to tell an American story.

About the reporter: Rosalind Bentley  is an arts and culture writer for The Atlanta Journal Constitution. In her eight years at the AJC, she has interviewed and written about dozens of national and local authors. Prior to that she was a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she covered Nelson Mandela's first election as president of South Africa. In 1991 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of race relations in Minnesota.

How we got the story: This story began with a two hour interview of Natasha Trethewey in her Decatur home in June. Bentley also interviewed Trethewey's father, Eric Trethewey, Librarian of Congress James Billington, some of her colleagues and students at Emory University, and fellow poets such as former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Elizabeth Alexander, Kevin Young and former members of the Dark Room Collective, including Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith and Thomas Sayers Ellis. Bentley was given access to an unpublished manuscript by Eric Trethewey. Her reporting was also informed by reading all five of Trethewey's books and essays, as well as archival stories from The Atlanta Constitution. Some descriptions were recreated from transcripts of Trethewey's readings.

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